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Politics In Social Media Is Preaching To The Converted, But 500 Million Facebook Users Is Nothing To Scoff At

PR in Canada contributor Kiel Hume is a PR consultant based in Toronto.  You can connect with Kiel on Twitter at @kielculture.

Guest co-author Denise Brunsdon was the Online Campaign Director for the Stephane Dion Liberal Leadership and was Muchmusic’s Liberal blog correspondent during the 2008 federal election. She is the Director of Social Media for GCI Canada. You can connect with Denise on Twitter at @Brunsdon.

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion of what kind of role, if any, social media will play in the election.  Whether it’s Twitter comments about Michael Ignatieff’s hands-free tweets during the English language debate, or the popular Shit Harper Did (SHD) blog, social media and its role in the democratic electoral process is currently a hot topic.

On one side of the debate, an older generation of political analysts (the National Post’s Lorne Gunter comes to mind) feel confident in writing off social media as a legitimate form of political expression, along with the 30,000 Facebook “Likes” the Shit Harper Did received in a couple days. On the other side is a new breed of political communications strategist, the social media expert. This group rightly insists that there is an entire generation out there who produce and consume social media almost hourly, and whose ability to embrace a candidate online is only just beginning to make a stamp on election campaigns.

The correct answer, of course, lies somewhere in between these two opinions. While social media has a great deal of potential in political communication and organization, the strategic knowledge to fulfill this potential is still in its infancy.

The most important question in the current technological climate is, does social media influence politics? To a certain degree, social media absolutely influences politics: just like a news article or a piece of literature, exposure to political messaging can impact opinion. But one simple fact validates the opinion that there is currently a misplaced hype around social media during this campaign – most online politics is the act of preaching to the converted. Facebook, Twitter, forums and other online spaces are acting like echo chambers for people of one political stripe to chat back and forth with all of their social contacts, who are often of the same stripe. Social media has some influence if it exposes new campaign messages to undecided voters, but this situation is the rarity and not the norm.

Political parties are using social media more as a tool for organizing stalwarts than a soap box to sway voters. Social media is evolving into a demographic science, more interested in data and direction than the pure volume of hits or followers. Political parties are giving up the large, national days-of-yore platforms in favour of cold, hard, calculated targets ridings. Social media helps this effort. Facebook, Twitter and Google ads are built to geo-target readers, and they are a huge help politically in getting the necessary local volunteers, donors and event attendees. As we saw earlier in the campaign, they are also an easy way to suss out unwanted event attendees (cough, cough).

And while elections and revolutions aren’t won online from a communications standpoint, social media does have the power to mobilize people, especially partisans. This is the current power of social media that practitioners utilize most. The goal is not to get the most Likes, but to get the most Likes from groups that have been strategically identified partisan affiliates that can then be encouraged to vote. Ironically, door-knockers will tell you the same thing. It’s not about growing your voter base, it’s about finding the voters that you already have and getting them out.

But it won’t always be this way. Eventually, with a little more time and a little more penetration of the tools and platforms – because even now Twitter holds no appeal to more than half of Canadians – political discourse online will expand outside the din of the partisan combatants. And websites, Facebook Groups and Twitter handles with clever, broad appeal like ShitHarperDid.com are part of the slow expansion to the general population.

In less than a week, the SHD Facebook page received 30,000 “Likes,” and “liking” SHD is a genuine instance political expression on a politically neutral site. While some readers may shy away from reading the Huffington Post or Fox News for political reasons, no one is avoiding Facebook because of an ideological stance unique to the site itself. Sure thirty thousand potential or actual voters isn’t necessarily wreaking havoc, but it is starting a conversation. That this one site touched thirty thousand people mean it must have reached at least some undecided voters.

The bottom line is, social media for politics needs more time to grow. It needs more tools, it needs more online users and it needs more undecideds engaged in the conversation before it really lights up Canadian politics.

By Denise Brunsdon and Kiel Hume